NCAA Tournament 2021: Projecting Bracket-Busters Before Conference Tournaments

Martin FennFeatured Columnist IMarch 6, 2021

NCAA Tournament 2021: Projecting Bracket-Busters Before Conference Tournaments

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    College basketball fans were robbed of March Madness in 2020, with both the men's and women's NCAA tournaments cancelled because of COVID-19 concerns. But March Madness returns in 2021, with the entirety of the men's tournament being played in the state of Indiana.

    There's a reason it's called March Madness.

    Upsets and bracket-busters are a staple of the NCAA tournament. Underdogs become darlings. Just ask the 2017-18 UMBC Retrievers or the 2012-13 Florida Gulf Coast Eagles that made an inspired run to the Sweet 16 and became known as "Dunk City."

    Then of course, you have inspired Cinderella runs. Loyola-Chicago made the Final Four as a No. 11 seed in 2018. The South Carolina Gamecocks knocked off a number of powerhouses as a No. 7 seed en route to the Final Four in 2017. The 2014 National Championship Game featured a No. 7 seed (UConn) against a No. 8 seed (Kentucky). You get the picture. The list goes on.

    Which teams are capable of pulling off upsets and winning the hearts of basketball fans around the country? Let's take a look at some possible bracket-busters in the men's tournament.

Winthrop Eagles

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    The Winthrop Eagles do just about everything well.

    Coach Pat Kelsey's team finished the season first in the Big South Conference, with its lone blemish coming against North Carolina-Asheville toward the end of January. The Eagles rank 51st in the country in offensive rating and 25th in defensive rating. They do all the little things well.

    Winthrop ranks 13th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage. Freshman Kelton Talford especially is a menace on the offensive glass, averaging 2.1 offensive rebounds per game.

    Senior forward Chandler Vaudrin does it all for the Eagles, and he averaged 12.3 points, 7.0 rebounds and 7.0 assists per contest during the regular season. He has size and length and has proved himself very capable on the ball.

    While the Eagles do not fill it up from deep, freshman guard Josh Corbin is a sniper, and senior Charles Falden can also space the floor.

    The Eagles won their first two games in the Big South Conference Tournament and will play Campbell in the championship game. Andy Katz of currently projects Winthrop will be a No. 13 seed. Do not be surprised if the Eagles pull an upset in the first round.

Belmont Bruins

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    Daniel R. Patmore/Associated Press

    The Belmont Bruins have ample NCAA tournament experience. 

    Belmont most recently made it in longtime head coach Rick Byrd's final season with the program during the 2018-19 campaign, winning a First Four matchup with Temple before losing a nail-biter to Maryland. That team produced current Cleveland Cavaliers forward Dylan Windler. 

    Byrd retired after that season and was replaced by Casey Alexander. The new guy has done a tremendous job in his first two seasons.

    Alexander led the Bruins to a 26-7 mark last season as Belmont finished first in the Ohio Valley Conference. His team was even better this season, going 25-3 (18-2 in the OVC) and ranking 13th in the country in scoring.

    The Bruins might not have a senior on the roster, but junior center Nick Muszynski and forward Caleb Hollander were both key contributors on that aforementioned 2018-19 team.

    Muszysnki is the leading scorer and defensive anchor inside. He can score in the post and rotate over to block shots on the other end.

    Fellow junior Grayson Murphy is one of the best rebounding guards in the country (8.1 boards per game) and quite the assist man. He is also one of five Bruins players to average double figures in the scoring department.

    Belmont ranks 19th in field-goal percentage and fourth in assists per game. That offensive prowess could power the Bruins to an upset or two later this month.

Oklahoma State Cowboys

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    Brody Schmidt/Associated Press

    OK, maybe there is a little bit of cheating going on in labeling Oklahoma State a "bracket buster."

    The Cowboys came in at No. 17 in the latest AP Top 25 poll. They have one of the best players in the country in Cade Cunningham, who could very well be the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft this summer.

    But Oklahoma State still works here on the basis the Cowboys could even make a Final Four run.

    Coach Michael Boynton's team dropped a tough one to the No. 3 Baylor Bears on Thursday, but that was on the heels of three straight wins over ranked opponents. The Cowboys earned overtime victories over Texas Tech and Oklahoma, then beat the Sooners once again Monday.

    Oklahoma State has wins over Kansas and Arkansas. The Cowboys lost to West Virginia earlier in the season but will have their shot at vengeance on Saturday.

    In short, the Cowboys have played quality teams all year and, aside from Thursday's loss to Baylor, are starting to find a groove.

    Everything starts and ends with Cunningham, who is averaging 19.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.4 steals while also shooting 42.5 percent from beyond the arc. He had 40 points in the team's win over Oklahoma.

    Of course, it remains to be seen whether the Cowboys will be allowed to participate in the Big Dance. Oklahoma State is awaiting the NCAA's ruling on its appeal of a postseason ban implemented last summer.

    But if the Cowboys get in, there is no telling just how far they can go, mostly because Cunningham might have the talent to single-handedly power them to a deep run.


    All stats obtained via Sports Reference, unless otherwise noted.